Washington museum builds cultural collection of black America
Curators of the Smithsonian’s new African-American history museum reveal art they’ve acquired so far
By Julia Halperin. Museums, Issue 249, September 2013
Published online: 19 September 2013
In the past ten years, the National Museum of African American History and Culture has built a collection of 18,000 objects—including a little-known but substantial collection of visual art. When the $500m institution opens on the National Mall in Washington, DC, in 2015, works by Jacob Lawrence, Elizabeth Catlett and Lorna Simpson will accompany historical objects such as an antebellum slave cabin from the 1850s and a segregated Jim Crow train carriage from 1922.
The museum will include a series of galleries dedicated to visual art, ranging from the late 18th century to the present. It has been steadily acquiring works from auction houses, private collections and galleries, such as DC Moore and Howard Greenberg in New York. Among the museum’s purchases is Sam Gilliam’s April 4, 1972, an abstract painting dedicated to Martin Luther King, bought from New York’s Swann Galleries in 2011 for $31,200. The museum does not disclose its acquisition budget.
“We believe you cannot tell the story of African-American history and achievement without art,” says Kinshasha Conwill, the museum’s deputy director. Deborah Willis, the chair of photography and imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts, is helping to advise the museum on its collection. “When my students walk through the exhibition, they will see a history not only of struggle but also of achievement,” Willis says.
The visual art collection makes up only around 1% of the museum’s holdings. The cost of art—generally higher than that of historical documents and artefacts—has limited what the museum can buy, says Jacquelyn Serwer, the museum’s chief curator. “It’s not easy to pull together large amounts of money to buy art when there are so many things we have to buy that are much less expensive,” she says.
Like most museums, the institution relies on private collectors to donate works that are too costly to buy. Some artists, such as Eldzier Cortor, a 96-year-old Modernist painter who worked in New York after the Harlem Renaissance, have donated their own works to the museum. Those still on the institution’s wish list include Kerry James Marshall, Leonardo Drew, Rashid Johnson, David Hammons and Sanford Biggers.
Some of the museum’s most significant gifts came unexpectedly. In 2008, Margaret Asch, an academic at the University of Victoria in Canada, travelled to Washington, DC, to deliver the drawing Dixie Café, 1948, by Jacob Lawrence. The artist created the work after visiting the South and experiencing segregation for the first time. Asch inherited it from her father; most scholars had assumed it was lost. “She and her husband showed up at our office unannounced and took out the drawing, and everybody in the room burst into tears,” Serwer says.
The museum, co-designed by the British architect David Adjaye and the US architectural firm Freelon Group, is also looking to buy several works of outdoor sculpture to install in its garden.
The inaugural display will include paintings from the Harlem Renaissance and the Spiral Group, an African-American art collective associated with Abstract Expressionism. A handful of paintings will also be hung in the historical galleries. These include Hunted Slaves, 1862, by Richard Ansdell, which depicts two runaway slaves being chased by fierce mastiff dogs.
The curators want to encourage visitors to consider the contribution of African-American artists as part of a broader art-historical narrative. “We’re very game to convince people that there have been accomplished, interesting, innovative African-American artists at every stage of American art,” Serwer says. She says the museum is not afraid to confront hot topics, despite the fact that it is part of the Smithsonian Institution, which is sensitive to criticism from Capitol Hill. In 2010, the Smithsonian’s Secretary, G. Wayne Clough, censored the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition “Hide/Seek” by controversially ordering the removal of a video by David Wojnarowicz. “If you’re going to talk about race in this country, you’re going to have to be prepared to create some controversy,” Serwer says.
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